Sunday, January 25, 2009

Author Q & A: Bruce Allardice

In addition to numerous articles and essay contributions, Bruce S. Allardice is the author or co-author of several well regarded reference books, More Generals in Gray (LSU, 1995), Texas Burial Sites of Civil War Notables- A Biographical and Pictorial Field Guide (with Jim Mundie, John Luckey and Dean Letzring; Hill College, 2002), Confederate Colonels: A Biographical Register (Missouri, 2008), and most recently Kentuckians in Gray: Confederate Generals and Field Officers of the Bluegrass State (as contributor and general editor with Lawrence L. Hewitt; Kentucky, 2008).

DW: More Generals in Gray and Confederate Colonels are unquestionably works of exceptional dedication. What drew you to researching and writing reference books?

BA: What drew me to researching and writing reference books? Equal parts intellectual curiosity and stupidity. Perhaps my first Civil War book was Ezra Warner’s “Generals in Gray.” This work was a pioneering and monumental work of scholarship. But in reading it I could see the blanks that needed filling. For years I waited for someone else to build on what Warner wrote, never really thinking to or desiring to write a book. Eventually I decided to take on the task myself.

When I started writing, some 15 years ago, I knew there were sources well known to genealogists which had been hitherto neglected by Civil War historians. Plus, online sources were emerging that could provide answers and make such reference works possible. Today there’s so much online information—digitalized old newspapers, censii, even service records—that I could research “More Generals” in half the time it actually took.


DW: Authoritative reference books require as much research, and sometimes analysis, as any specialized narrative study, and the best become indispensable standard works to be consulted by a broad range of historians, yet they are generally bypassed on the award circuit. Do you ever feel that writing them is something of a thankless exercise? What groups provide you with the most feedback?

BA: I often joke that you have to be crazy to write a reference book. Which perhaps explains why most authors shy away from this scholarship-rich, but reward-poor, field. But when some author emails you saying how much your book helped his, when you see your book listed in the bibliography of another book, that’s reward enough.


DW:
Could you comment on the contention that perhaps reference works are best published in digital form (allowing for ready correction, updating, etc.) rather than traditional print media?

BA: It is clear that digital publishing is the wave of the future. In a small sense we already have a form of digital publishing, with Google digitalizing many recent print publications. Many people only search for information online (in my classes I often see students using the reference site wikipedia to research homework assignments), and their number is growing, so unless a reference work has a digital presence, it might not be as useful to the public.

Print books inevitably have a cost to produce, which often limits what an author can put in the book. For example, my colonels book could have been twice as long, with many more photos, if it was an online product. I have that much more in my files I’d love to put in, but can’t in the print format with its limitation on pages. What you say about updating is also true. Print books are set in stone, at least until a 2nd printing, and just in the last two months new online resources have provided new information on many officers. I urge anyone who wishes to know more about any officer in my books to contact me via my website, www.civilwarbruce.com.

However, while very few Civil War authors write books to make money, those authors want to make enough to at least cover the out-of-pocket expenses in researching the book. Book royalties more or less cover those expenses. With all the hours I spent on the colonels, I figure I’ll make in royalties $1-2 per hour spent—not as much as I could make flipping burgers at McDonald’s! Putting the work online wouldn’t even garner that much.


DW: Yes, it really is a Catch-22 for authors. There certainly remains a disconnect between paying for content when it comes to format -- paper vs. digital, as the early Internet created a user culture expecting the content to be free. Online publication makes cut-and-paste plagiarism easier, as well. Anyway, back to the questions. You’ve published many articles of a military history nature. Do you have plans to delve into book length narrative history at some point?

BA: Yes. Just have to find the time.


DW: As a lifelong Illinois resident, what led you to devote so much of your Civil War writing career (up to this point, anyway) to the Confederate officer corps?

BA: I’m asked this question a lot when I give presentations. It’s not because I have any Confederate relatives or Southern connections. Most of my ancestors weren’t even in the U.S. in 1861, and my one Civil War ancestor was in the Union army. When I give a talk “down South” I like to point out that my Union army ancestor, a lieutenant, did more to help the Confederate cause than the Union cause since, in the words of his regimental commander, my ancestor was “the worst company commander in the Union army.” The southern audiences seem to enjoy that comment!

I had grown up with Ezra Warner’s two books on Civil War generals and, with my background in genealogy, I felt that there were more “blanks” to fill on the Confederate side than on the Union. The “need” was for more study on the Confederate officer corps. If the federal records had been destroyed at the end of the war like many of the Confederate records had been, I probably would have focused on the Union army officer corps instead.


DW: You highlight your demographic findings in your excellent, detailed introduction to Confederate Colonels. Did you find any of the patterns surprising in terms of challenging conventional wisdom or your own expectations?

BA: Glad you asked that. I’m a vocal skeptic of the “great man” viewpoint of studying history, tending to focus instead on the underlying fact patterns that shape all leaders' decisions. In studying the Confederate officer corps, I found that the differences between the two main armies (the ANV and the ATN) were vast, and correlated with how successful those two armies were. For example, the ANV drew both the cream of the officer corps, and the cream of the South’s available manpower, for perfectly predictable reasons explained in the Introduction.

Conventional wisdom held that the Virginia army performed better only because Robert E. Lee commanded it. While it is true that Lee was by far the South’s best army commander (clearly so, although I don’t worship Lee like a Douglas Southall Freeman would), the Virginia army contained more officers with prewar experience, and more regiments with prewar volunteer militia experience. President Davis would have been foolish to structure the ANV otherwise, because in Virginia the Confederacy could lose the war in a week, whereas in the West it would (and did) take years for Confederate defeats to have the same impact.

One finding that I did not expect was that the Confederate officer corps, at least on the regimental level, was made up of men who had military experience at the time they were made colonel. The volunteer soldiers weren’t dummies. They knew that electing an incompetent officer could cost them their lives, so they usually made an effort to elect experienced men.


DW: That certainly reinforces some of the conclusions from McMurry's Two Great Rebel Armies. In researching Confederate Colonels, what information did you find most difficult (e.g. missing records, lack of prior research, etc.) to obtain or interpret?

BA: Let me first say how Bob Krick’s “Lee’s Colonels” helped. It was relatively easy for me to cover the colonels of the ANV, because Bob had done much of the pioneer work.

One problem I ran into was determining exactly WHO was a Confederate army colonel. As the book makes plain, a lot of Confederate promotion records were lost at war’s end. And Confederate army record keeping was never very good to begin with—okay for the eastern armies, but steadily worse the farther west you go.

Another problem I ran into was summarized best in the musical “The King and I”, where Yul Brenner points out that mankind’s problem is not what we don’t know, but rather what we know as “fact’ often isn’t fact at all. I spent countless hours going through original records to correct what had previously been written.


DW: Working on a project years ago, it bugged me greatly that I could never find a photograph of Confederate General Charles W. Phifer [it seems none exist]. Are there any other “faceless” generals than you can recall?

BA: Drew, it’s funny you should mention Phifer, because since writing “More Generals,” I’ve found a hitherto unknown drawing (not photo) of Phifer when he was age 20. Of the other “faceless” MGIG generals, I’ve since come up with images for Philip Luckett, Jeffrey Forrest, Smith P. Bankhead and Charles D. Anderson.

Of the regularly appointed generals, there have been questions about images said to be William H. Carroll, James G. Martin, and the Garnetts. The images of the two generals Lane (James and Walter) were mixed up for decades. It is a bit surprising that questions would remain for decades about images of such famous figures.


DW:
If only I had known! I haven’t had to chance to finish my reading of Kentuckians in Gray yet, but it’s obvious that you and Larry Hewitt were able to assemble a great group of experts to author the book’s short biographies. What are some of the “hidden” difficulties in compiling and editing works of this type and similar ones like essay collections? It is often said that editing essay compilations is far more difficult than it might seem.

BA: You’re correct, editing what others write is never easy. Fortunately, we had a great set of contributors for the Kentucky book. The substance and scholarship of the essays was never a problem. It is also fortunate that Larry and I have different ways of looking at things, so when we read the same essay we’d notice different strengths and weaknesses. Whenever possible the latter were eliminated, which resulted in a better finished volume.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty with editing such a book is reconciling 30 different styles of abbreviation, capitalization, and suchlike into one more or less uniform style.


DW: The list of Kentucky Confederate generals is remarkable for its overall prominence and also for its low number of duds (e.g. Crittenden, Marshall). First of all, would you agree with that assessment, and, if so, do you believe there are any particular factors involved beyond coincidence?

BA: I’d agree that the Kentucky generals were very prominent. One reason for that may be that Kentucky’s schools were more developed than those of most states in the south and southwest. You can see how many Kentucky leaders attended Transylvania, attended Centre College, attended St. Joseph—at a time when there weren’t many good colleges west of Georgia. Another factor is that Kentucky had a strong connection to West Point. Of the 39 Kentucky generals, 16 (41%) attended West Point, a much higher ratio than for the Confederate states in general.


DW: Finally, do you have any current projects underway that you are able to speak about?

BA: I’m writing an essay on the Battle of Ezra Church for a forthcoming book. There are some other projects in the hopper, but I think I’m through with reference works on the Confederate officer corps. I’ll leave the “Lieutenant Colonels” book to someone else!


DW: Very good. Thanks for your time, Bruce. Readers, if you would like to know more about the author or his work, visit his personal website [here].

6 comments:

  1. Drew,

    Interesting interview. I'm curious what new book Mr. Allardice is talking about when he mentions his essay about Ezra Church. It sounds like something both you and I will be interested in.

    Brett

    ReplyDelete
  2. Brett,
    That's all I know. I mentioned to Bruce that he might want to check the comments section after the interview is posted, so you may get an answer.

    Drew

    ReplyDelete
  3. Art BergeronJanuary 26, 2009

    Bruce is completing an essay on Stephen D. Lee at the Battle of Ezra Church for a volume of essays tentatively titled "Confederate Generals in the Western Theater" that Larry Hewitt and I are putting together. The University of Tennessee Press has agreed to publish this volume.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for the clarification, Art!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks Art! I'll be on the lookout for that one.

    ReplyDelete
  6. George W. MartinFebruary 04, 2009

    Bruce is a class act. He has helped many people with research, including myself.

    ReplyDelete

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